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Disposable People

A touring photographic exhibition at the Festival Hall is a vivid reminder that slavery exists in increasing numbers. Review by Susan Jappie

The exhibition represents the collaboration between Autograph ABP, a charity that works internationally to raise human rights issues and Magnum Photos, the famous photographic co-operative that chronicles world events.

At the launch, co-ordinator Professor Kevin Bales, President of Free the Slaves, said slavery was the same as it always had been throughout history – “the complete control of one person by another. Violence is at the heart of that control, and the aim is profit.”

Two of the photographers have focused on the effects of economic globalisation. Jim Goldberg shows the trafficking of young people from Eastern Europe as part of the trend of an estimated at 2-4 million desperate women, children and unskilled men. They are exploited by pimps and gang masters, who make huge profits from their powerlessness as illegal immigrants, forcing them to work as prostitutes or unskilled labourers. His images include a pathetic group of young teenagers drooping with the effects of inhaling solvents.

Disposable People
Alex Webb: Haitian workers working in the Higeural area of the La Romana sugar complex,
Dominican Republic, during the Spring 2007 harvest

The other project that addresses the issues of human degradation shows the impoverishment of countries like Ghana, where the government has been forced to open its markets to subsidised excess produce from the West and cut its public spending on education and health services to pay off unfair debts, putting many farmers out of work. The old slave “castle” at Cape Coast is featured here among Ian Berry’s documentation for Christian Aid.

But most of the photographers focus on the more visually moving stories of child slavery in poor countries such as Haiti, where parents from poor rural areas send kids as young as four years old to live with urban families who force them to become domestic slaves. Their large eyed sad faces peer out from the photos. Bangladesh is the source of another story of internal slavery, where young street boys are tricked into working without pay for fishermen who need extra labour during the prime season to dry their catch.

Other topics covered by this wide-ranging exhibition include the sex slaves from Indonesia who were taken by the Japanese in World War II to “comfort” their soldiers, and whose grey wizened faces stare out as they still fight for compensation, and more contemporary Indonesian girls taken to work as domestics in Singapore, and whose earnings are taken by their recruiters for the first eight months.

Perhaps the saddest of all the pictures are those from the current civil war zone in Sudan, where the Arab militiamen from the North capture children from Darfur and treat them as chattels. A poor burnt-out man, enslaved as a boy, poses as he tells his story of helpless suffering.

Although incredibly powerful as images of human beings reduced to objects in the 21st century, most of these are comfortably far from home. When I challenged Professor Bates on this and asked why there wasn’t more about people-trafficking and abuse in the UK or USA, he was rather defensive and said he had made it his mission to try to eradicate slavery wherever it was to be found.

Maybe it was hard to find images to show the illegal immigrants who benefit the economies of the rich Western countries, but it did feel a little unbalanced to me as an admirer of Rahila Gupta’s book about modern slavery in Britain!  

Disposable People, a Hayward Gallery free touring exhibition, is at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1 8XX until 9th November, when it moves on to Plymouth and other destinations.

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